Whereas radiofrequency ablation uses heat to stimulate nerves and reduce back pain, cryotherapy uses cold to the same effect. In its simplest form, cryotherapy is the use of cold temperatures to reduce pain. Putting an ice pack on a sore back is a form of cryotherapy. So is having an ice bath. The low temperatures numb nerve tissue which inhibit the body’s ability to send a pain signal to the brain. Sometimes called cryosurgery, more advanced treatments involve cold injections that target specific nerve areas. Cold therapy uses range from local or general depending on the needs of a patient.
How Cryotherapy Works
Using cold for therapeutic purposes is not a new practice. Its use goes as far back as the seventeenth century. Modern technology means this cold therapy exists now exists in more sophisticated forms. Now there are a wide range of practices that fall under the term cryotherapy. Different forms of cryotherapy essentially work in the same way, albeit with different levels of effectiveness. Cold temperatures decrease pain and inflammation at a specific site or in the body as a whole. There are also other uses ofcold therapy beyond pain management. In some cases—such as in the treatment of certain skin conditions—cryotherapy intentionally destroys cells. This is done by freezing the liquid inside a cell. As fluids expand when frozen, this procedure causes the cell walls to rupture as the cell liquid expands.
This technique involves applying carbon dioxide at -109°F at a pressure of 5.0 MPa and a frequency of 400 Hz to the painful area. One of the benefits of this type of cold therapy is that there is no limit to the frequency of treatments. Not only that, carbon dioxide does not produce pain. The idea behind this treatment is that it offers fast, effective pain relief. Hyperbaric gaseous cryotherapy can be especially beneficial when put to use immediately following an injury. However, the low temperature that can be achieved by this type of cryotherapy is much more effective than an ice pack.
While hyperbaric gaseous cryotherapy is safer than liquid nitrogen—used in cryosurgery—there is still the possibility of burns.
The most commonly used form of cryotherapy, ice pack therapy involves applying an ice pack to the affected/painful area of the body. Ice packs absorb the heat from an injury. The cold temperature also reduces inflammation and slows blood flow to the area. This numbs the local nerve tissue, thus allowing the body to relax. Cold also reduces muscle spasming. When the ice pack is removed, blood flow increases in an attempt to rewarm the area. This increase allows a greater quantity of oxygen to enter the site of injury. Faster healing occurs as a result of this.
There is the possibility of burns when applying ice directly to the skin. As a precaution, always wrap ice packs in a cloth or towel before applying them to your back.
Whole and Partial Body
Whereas ice pack therapy is localized, whole and partial body cryotherapy is used to target the entire body. Whole body cryotherapy involves an individual entering a chamber or ‘cryosauna’ where cold air—below 100°F—cools a patient’s body for two to four minutes. Partial body therapy varies slightly in that an individual sits in a cell with their head outside of the exposure area. Whole body cryotherapy uses forced air to create cold temperatures whereas partial body therapy uses evaporated liquid nitrogen.
There is not enough research available on the side effects whole body cryotherapy. Partial body cryotherapy is more popular within the United States. As such, there is more information available on partial body therapy. When it comes to partial body cryotherapy, there is the risk of asphyxiation and frostbite as evaporated liquid nitrogen is being used.
Effectiveness FOR Back Pain
Regardless of the type of cryotherapy that a patient is undergoing, cold treatments can help in managing back pain. Cold decreases inflammation, reduces pain and promotes healing. When used properly, there are very few side effects that come from cold therapy. One of the benefits of this treatment is that there is not need for long waiting times in between treatments. While not a one-stop solutions to back pain, cryotherapy can offer substantial relief for people living with back pain.